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The modern, digitalised world is producing steadily increasing quantities of data which need to be processed and stored in a sustainable fashion. Norway’s unique combination of natural resources, technological expertise and extensive investment makes it an environmentally optimal location for data centres.
The activities of a modern society – and in particular the “smart” developments, such as smart grids, smart cities, smart mobility – generate a vast amount of data.
All of this data must be processed and stored. That is why we are seeing an explosive growth in data centres – the factories that process and store the data.
The drawback? Data centres need energy. Lots of energy. This is where Norway’s data centre industry, which runs on clean electricity, comes in.
Ninety-eight per cent of Norway’s electricity is produced from renewable sources such as hydropower and wind. And in a typical year, Norway produces more electricity than it consumes. Moreover, the cool climate enables energy-efficient cooling, and several locations involve reuse of existing infrastructure and/or excess heat.
In 2018, the Norwegian Government launched the world’s first national data centre strategy, including tax reductions and incentives to improve connectivity. This strategy has inspired a positive spiral of investments. In 2019, Microsoft opened several data centres in Norway, while Volkswagen located a centre for high-performance computing (HPC) here and Google bought a large plot of land from Statkraft.
In addition, several new submarine fibre cables were announced. A landing point for the HAVFRUE cable was recently opened in Kristiansand, and is the first direct connection between Norway and the US. Meanwhile, the NO-UK.com and Skagenfiber cables are now fully financed and will provide high-capacity routes directly from Norway to the UK and Denmark, respectively.
These three submarine fibre cables represent a radical improvement in international connectivity and mark an important milestone in the development of the Norwegian data centre industry.
Clearly, not all data can reside in Norway because all data is not created equal. Some data needs to be in close proximity to the user, while some can travel far and still retain its value.
Imagine that Europe is a supermarket of data. There is a “fresh produce section” comprising recently harvested data intended for immediate processing, which is concentrated in Frankfurt, London, Amsterdam and Paris (known collectively as FLAP). This kind of data needs to be kept close to its point of use, which is why so much of Europe’s data processing power is located by the internet highways in Northern Europe.
Then there is a “frozen section”, where data that is not as sensitive to the time-lag distance implies (known as latency) can reside. Good examples are data intended for long-term storage or HPC. The frozen section does not need to be located at the nexus of international data infrastructure, but can rather be placed where it is environmentally optimal – for example, close to an abundance of renewable power.
With the advent of new technologies such as 5G and Edge, the existing produce sections are expected to expand, with other, smaller fresh produce sections popping up in many locations.
Due to the inherent intermittency of solar and wind power, it is not ideal to concentrate data centres in areas where round-the-clock renewable energy cannot be guaranteed. Security of supply will be an issue, especially during the winter months when batteries and virtual power plants cannot satisfy modern societies’ demand for baseload. A better solution would be to move as much data as possible from the fresh produce section in continental Europe to the frozen section in the Nordics, where a steady supply of renewables can keep data centres running 24/7.
Norway, while not a member of the European Union (EU), is part of the European Economic Area (EEA). The EEA Agreement includes the EU’s four freedoms: the free movement of goods, services, persons and capital within the single market. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is implemented in Norway and applies in the same way as it does in the EU. Therefore, for a provider of data hosting services it makes no difference whether personal data relating to, for example, Dutch clients is hosted in a data centre in France or in Norway.
Norway’s abundance of hydropower makes the country a green battery for Europe, not only in terms of electricity exports, but by enabling more environment-friendly storage and processing of European data.